My Year in Lists
Week Thirty Five

My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.

"Purveyors of sinister whimsy to the wretched."-Discogs description of Nurse With Wound

"For me, Parklife is like a loosely linked concept album involving all these different stories. It's the travels of the mystical lager-eater, seeing what's going on in the world and commenting on it."-Damon Albarn.

Early in the debut (and title) track of his 1994 album Rock'n Roll Station, Nurse With Wound says "A rock and roll session is a session where we can do what we want to do." Without question, this has always been the way that Steve Stapleton has operated in a recording studio. But how true is that for the average musician? One of the reasons that experimental music exists in the first place, and one of the reasons I think it is an important, even vital genre of music, is because it allows literally every rule to be broken. By its very nature, it exists to mess with our definitions of music and make us ask questions about how we define music and what we require our music to be. These are questions any musician can theoretically pose, but very few who aim for commercial success can tackle such heady ideas.

Nurse With Wound has always worked with our perceptions of music, but Rock'n Roll Station, released in 1994, seems to directly take on the question of what we want our popular music to be, even if it does so in an obscure and subtle way. That first track has a surprising amount of heft to it considering its minimalistic approach. It keeps you interested, even when it is doing almost nothing at all. "The Self Sufficient Sexual Shoe" seems to be taking on the place of sexuality in music, as whispers eliciting ideas of sexual heat clash with an ominous bass and drum thunder that give the melody a polished chill. The vocals in the song seem to be begging for a free spirited, seductive read on music's place in society; the melody, on the other hand, seems a well-constructed argument for music as a science more than an art, something that is constructed for sound more than for feeling.

The album seems to become denser and more difficult as it goes along, as if Stapleton, having posed the question of whether music should be more artistic or more scientific, and has found himself leaning more towards the constructed than the free-flowing. "Two Golden Microphones" has a denser, more tribal feel, playing with hammer notes and heavy synthesized tones, and bringing in a world beat. Feeling may take a back seat to construction in the mind of Steve Stapleton, but that doesn't mean emotion doesn't have its place in music. By the time we reach the final track, "Finsbury Park, May 8th, 1:35 p.m. (I'll See You in Another World)," Stapleton's experiments with other sounds are mostly absent, leaving only what he generally works with; he started Rock'n Roll Station taking a look at the rest of the music world, but as the title implies, he ends the album asking us to join him in his own.

When Stapleton began operating solo as Nurse With Wound, his original mission statement included a provision that he did not like "songs." However, for most of the "˜90s, Nurse With Wound releases had become heavily song-based (Rock'n Roll Station being a perfect example. In 2002, NWW went back to basics with Man with the Woman Face a heavily ambient and free form record that seems like a tribute to the early albums we discussed.

Like every Nurse With Wound album, Man with the Woman Face takes time to fully absorb, but it somehow coalesces into what feels like a very personal statement from Stapleton.

The first track, "Beware the African Mosquito (Ring Your Doorbell, Put You to Sleep)" begins with a quiet ambient loop but slowly adds layer upon layer of surrealism, the sorts of which we haven't heard since the early NWW releases. The track includes sounds of throat clearing, a swarm of mosquitos buzzing, a man saying "just a second," springs seeming to uncoil and a near cartoonish scurrying sound that might be at home sound-tracking Wil E. Coyote as he runs off a cliff until the noises come together in a cacophony of noise. "Ag canadh thuas sa speir" (which is Gaelic for "Up in the sky, singing" sounds like the sort of thing I'd be terrified to wake up to, a sea of groans and high pitched tones which eventually grow in intensity and are joined by what sounds like a dark carnival. "White Light from the Stars in Your Mind (A Paramechanical Development)" gathers an electronic hiss, humming noises, a manipulated voice, organ riffs, stray radio signals and a bit of a tribal rhythm. The whole album feels like a more refined version of Nurse with Wound's early efforts; it is still a random collection of sounds like those efforts, but these somehow coalesce in a more oddly evocative way. In spite of all the seeming clutter, these songs feel deliberate, constructed and orderly (apologies, by the way, for the lack of links in this section. Nurse With Wound is obscure to begin with, and not all of his releases are easily linked to).

Nurse With Wound has proven to be an incredibly important force in the experimental community, and over the last three weeks has at least vaguely won me over. I still like the more song-based NWW albums more than the ambient works, but I see the merits of each and understand the importance of what Stapleton aims to accomplish. Next week we will finish up our look at Nurse With Wound by examining two collaborative efforts, but for now, as we leave his solo work behind I have to give credit where it is due. Steve Stapleton is a creative force to be reckoned with, a surrealist mastermind that can titillate and terrify in equal measure while also getting to the root of some of the most important questions we can ask about music.

Childhood friends Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon met Alex James at London's Goldsmiths College in 1988. At the time Albarn was in a group called Circus, who were joined by by drummer Dave Rowntree that October. The December, Circus fired two members and James joined as the new bassist for a hole new group named Seymour. That group performed live for the first time in the summer of 1989. In November of that year, Food Records' A&R man Andy Ross attended a performance of the group and wanted to sign them to the label. The only concern was that Ross hated the group's name. He drew up a list of alternatives from which the group picked Blur.

The band began as more of a shoegaze outfit, but by the time of their third album, and Ashley's pick this week, Parklife in 1994 they were taking more pages out of Suede's book and adopting a Britpop sound. While Albarn calls the album a concept album, it never really coalesced as one narrative for me; this isn't a bad thing, though, as it always played as 16 really solid Britpop songs, several of which use disparate influences to explore the limits of the newly forming sound. The opening track, "Girls & Boys" is a synth-pop influenced track that evolves a dance beat and retains a sass that is almost reminiscent of The Cure . "End of the Century" sounds more like a standard "˜90s Britpop track, a song about how obsession with the upcoming turn of the century was making people disaffected with the more important present. While sonic experiments like "Girls & Boys," and the punkish "Bank Holiday" showed the band's range, more straightforward Britpop showed the power of the sound the band was in the midst of creating around them, and helped to cement the idea of Britpop as a cultural movement as much as an artistic one.

"Parklife" is a song about the band's daily life in Castle Park in Colchester, where they lived at the time. The song also played a part in the rivalry between Blur and fellow Britpop group Oasis (who we will discuss in three weeks), who drunkenly sang the song (with Liam Gallagher "cleverly" changing the choruse to "Shitelife") when Oasis collected the Best British Band Award that Blur had also been nominated for. "To the End," which features a full orchestral accompaniment, and as such a much more lush sound, describes a couple trying unsuccessfully to overcome a bad patch in their relationship. "This is a Low" discusses a low-pressure area of weather forming over England, metaphorically commenting on the troubles facing the country at the time. A quiet epic, the penultimate song on the album is a near perfect exploration of many of the ideas that have appeared through out the album, and also feels melodically like the perfect meshing between the band's genre-hopping songs and their more straightforward Britpop sound.

After another Britpop outing, Blur went through another reinvention emerging as a lo-fi indie outfit. In 2003 the band went on indefinite hiatus as its members engaged in side projects, most prominently Damon Albarn's new band Gorillaz. The band recently reunited for a successful series of concerts and have been recording singles over the last few years. While there is no plan for another album currently due to the members other projects, the band is still creatively fertile more than two decades after their formation.

The Prodigy, which formed in 1991, and consists of Liam Howlett, dancer Keith Flint and vocalist Maxim, became pioneers of the big beat genre, along with Fatboy Slim (who we will discuss next week) throughout the "˜90s. The band released their third album, and Collin's pick this week, The Fat of the Land in 1997. The opening track, "Smack My Bitch Up" is both the band's most famous and most infamous song. The band insists that the song is about "doing anything intensely," but in fact for some reason many people interpreted the lyrics as misogynistic, leading to the album being banned from many stores and to a public feud with The Beastie Boys, who asked the band not to play the song at the 1998 Reading Festival. The band ignored the request and played the song anyway.

"Breathe," easily my favorite song off the album (and also, to give credit where credit is due, a song that has been on my ipod for years as a result of a mix cd tab made when I was in elementary school and enigmatically called 1979 in spite of the fact that none of the songs on it were from that year and the song "1979" was not included on it) is an incredibly catchy, even propulsive big beat song that manages to be appealing and memorable without even the faintest hint of misogyny (unless you count the whipping sounds heard throughout, but I think those just add well to the beat). "Firestarter" actually featured vocals by Flint, showcasing him as the group's frontman. The song also caused controversy because, you know, it was about starting fires. People just won't seem to give The Prodigy a break, even if they stop singing about beating women (or "doing anything intensely") for long enough to sing about some simple arson.

The Prodigy may have some controversial subjects for their songs, but they never let their tendency to go for the throat become a crutch or an excuse to limit themselves musically. Instead they stretched big beat further than ever before and turned The Fat of the Land into a landmark record of the genre.

Its obvious that from the start Nurse With Wound used every rock and roll session as a session where he could do what he wanted, and while that is admirable, it is arguably easier for a person working in the genre of experimental music. What is at least equally impressive (if not more so) is when bands aiming for larger commercial audiences also do whatever it is they want to. Neither Blur nor The Prodigy stretched quite as far into experimentation as Nurse With Wound, but Blur attempted synthpop, punk rock, and New Wave tracks in addition to their evolving Britpop sound on Parklife, and The Prodigy didn't let fear of starting a controversy keep them from expanding the limits of the big beat genre into all new territories. Regardless of how far these bands went, each took a risk. Whenever an artist decides to experiment, they are flirting with failure and the farther afield they go, the more they risk disaster. Each of these groups took that risk to different extents, and each of them managed not only to avoid failure, but to find some measure of success hidden just off the beaten path.

Read more My Year in Lists here

Look out next Wednesday for another My Year in Lists: Interlude, in which we discuss the 27 Club, the effect of death on a rock star's career, and what our obsession with rock stars dying young says about us as a culture.

Next week on My Year in Lists:

We finish up our month long examination of Nurse With Wound by looking at two collaborative efforts, with NWW and Stereo Lab's Crumb Duck and NWW and Current 93's Nylon Coverin' Body Smotherin', join Pavement in exploring Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and agree with Fatboy Slim when he tells us, You've Come a Long Way, Baby.

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